Look into my heart. I know that everything you need is in there. It has to be. I never sold my soul to anyone! ...You take from me what it is I want, it just can't be that I would want something bad! Damn it all, I can't think of anything, except those words of his... “HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED!" — Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
It’s not that STALKER hates you. It’s just indifferent to you. You might be the player, the hero of the sparse story that ties the game’s major locations and events together, but you’re not actually important. You will die as quickly and as squalidly as any of the AI characters who populate STALKER’s mutant-infested, radiation-scorched wasteland. The game will continue to run after you are dead until you finally reload, and in the meantime you can watch your corpse lie deserted in a ruins of rural Ukraine, scavenged by passing stalkers or dragged away by packs of hungry mutants. The world does not begin or end with you.
STALKER 2 was announced by Sergiy Grygorovych last week, the founder of GSC Game World, the studio that produced the original 2007 game and its two standalones, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat. It was an abrupt return to life for a sequel and a series that Grygorovych had killed just as abruptly back in 2011, when he announced to his stunned employees that he had decided to cancel the project and close the studio. Now he’s getting the band back together. Or maybe just the brand.
I don’t want to be cynical about STALKER 2. There were some efforts to take advantage of that franchise’s following and reputation that certainly deserved cynicism—like that ghastly Areal Kickstarter from ages ago—but I think most of the people who wanted to create a sequel or a “spiritual successor” to GSC’s brilliant trilogy were sincere. I remember how crushed I was when Vostok Games’ Survarium turned into an early-access multiplayer project, and yet how surprisingly similar to STALKER the game actually felt. I spent weeks running around that game’s deathmatch maps, growing deadly with bolt-action rifles while I studied the strange new landscapes. I felt like I could see in the environments Vostok had created the shape of the game they were trying to create, and the utter impossibility of their ever finishing.
The fact that Sergey Galyonkin—a 1C alumnus who is famous for Steam Spy and who now works at Epic Games—implied that he’s aware of the project is cause to think that maybe there’s some substance here. But it’s been over a decade, and many of the people who made STALKER have moved on. A lot of the original game’s leadership and talent went to 4A games and the Metro series, and part of me thinks that Metro: Exodus might be about as close to a new STALKER game as we are likely to get these days.
But setting aside all questions of intent and resources, my chief reservation is that I am not sure that STALKER can be recaptured today. Games can be hard, they can have complicated open worlds, they can have tons of emergent systems and independent AI actors, they can be bleak… but can they be indifferent?
You might think I’m exaggerating. That this indifference is a pose STALKER strikes, pretending to threaten you while keeping the safety net below you. It’s not.
What I mean is that one of the hardest and most grueling encounters in STALKER is its very first. A man hands you a loaded 9mm pistol and sixty extra rounds of ammunition and tells you that you need to help storm a bandit camp and liberate a prisoner they are keeping there. There are seven of them and four of you but, this being a video game, maybe that doesn’t sound so hard.
And then the next thing you know you’re frantically scrambling for cover behind a rusted-out trailer, listening to pistol rounds landing in the dirt all around you, or clanging off of thetrailer’s steel frame. Your allies are dead, most of the bandits are still alive, and out of those sixty rounds you’re down to seven rounds in the magazine. Are you even hitting anyone? It’s almost impossible take aim with the hand-me-down Makarov you were given: Every shot causes the gun to buck wildly and in your hands and the gunsight is little more than a giant low-slung wedge of steel atop the slide. You can’t see shit when you take aim, and you can’t hit shit when you don’t.
A light rain is starting to fall as the bandits begin to converge on your hiding place from two sides, the booms of a sawed-off shotgun sending little hailstorms of buckshot all around your head. Like you, the bandits can’t do anything at long-range, but now they have numbers and the distance is closing. Somehow you need to shoot your way out of this trap, knock one of these guys on his ass, take whatever ammo he’s carrying before his friends can draw a bead on you, and then run like hell so that the rest of these guys lose track of where you’re hiding and you can start to turn the tables on them.
The first time you try this, you’ll break cover in the wrong direction, find yourself in front of a double-barreled shotgun, and the game will be over before that last fact even registers. On the next try you make good your escape, but you realize you have no health left and are bleeding heavily, and your character expires behind the stone fence where you’ve taken cover. The next time you run out of cover, kill a man, start to loot him, and then a lucky headshot cuts you down. Another time you kill the same guy, don’t feel safe looting him, and you’ve run to safety before you realize that you’re out of ammo entirely now. You decide to give your knife a try and see whether stealth assassinations will work. They don’t.
Eventually you’ll win the battle. It’ll be wonderfully tense and harrowing, and you will have effectively graduated STALKER’s Infantry Combat School. There will be other hard fights to come, but none this squalid, nor infuriatingly futile. A long time later, when you’re covered in an armored MOPP suit that shrugs off pistol rounds at long range, and carrying a beautiful, scoped Enfield L85 assault rifle that shoots straight and true, you’ll think back to this fight the way you think about your first car, your first apartment, and all the other things that you learned to cope with in a world so resolutely hostile to your expectations for it.
But this first fight wasn’t a lesson, really. You’re not being immunized by knowledge against future battles and adversaries. Plenty more sudden, shocking deaths still await you. It is more of a warning: You are as fragile and weak as everything else.
Playing this a few nights ago, I was enraptured because I had forgotten how utterly unforgiving STALKER was in its opening hour. I was getting back in touch with an old friend and all the memories were flooding back as I slogged my way through the battle and finally got my feet underneath me to begin my attack on the main game. But I also found myself thinking about how hard this would be for a new game to recapture.
Because STALKER was just itself, a game and then a trilogy that made choices, compromises and—let’s be honest—probably some mistakes that turned it into one of the most compelling and singular shooters in history. There was no mystique around it, no maniacal fan base full of people dying to tell you about their favorite STALKER anecdotes at the slightest invitation, or even without an invitation. STALKER was not yet a shorthand for all the other things an open world game could be, and all the things that well-designed emergent systems could do if you just gave them space to interact and react to one another. It didn’t have to worry about being an authentic STALKER game. Nor did it have a decade’s worth of more accessible, more tutorialized open world games to pull from.
Any new STALKER, or anyone trying to make something similar, will face countless choices to be weighed against the example and the memory of that original trilogy. It would have to figure out how to update and improve on something whose greatness has always felt at least partially unplanned, a byproduct of naivete, ambition, and happy accident. In some ways, the task is impossible on its face. The moment you ask for a better STALKER, you are asking for the game to pander and to flatter. But revisiting the original now, it’s commanding because it genuinely doesn’t seem to care what you want, or what you expect. A man hands you a loaded 9mm pistol and sixty extra rounds of ammunition. You take it or leave it. The world of STALKER will be fine without you in it.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/435w9g/by-design-stalker-2-can-never-live-up-to-nine-years-of-expectations